The Judge – Book Three – Highland Heroes
Sometimes a broken promise really isn’t broken. It’s just a promise that took a little longer to be fulfilled.
When her father betrothed her to a duke, Isobel didn’t worry because Alasdair swore he’d save her. But he didn’t. Then word came her true love had succumbed to the plague. So, she married, and life became a living hell. Now she’s on the run to protect her son from his sadistic father and she discovers Alasdair alive and well, and begging for the chance to keep the promise he made so long ago.
Thanks to his MacCoinnich cousins; Alasdair Cameron is now the successful solicitor of two powerful Highland clans. A respected Scottish gentleman, his comfortable estate in Edinburgh has all a man could ever want. Except one thing. Life is cold and empty without his Isobel. He’s loved her since the two of them were children. But her father gave her to another, and Alasdair arrived too late to save her from the altar. He’s resigned himself to a life alone until his brother Ian talks him into a visit to Château Delatate, Edinburgh’s elite and secretive gentleman’s club, and the beguiling hostess answering the door is none other than his precious Isobel.
Duchess Isobel Cuthbarten never forgot her dear Alasdair’s oath: I’ll never let another take ye. Words of hope until she was told Alasdair was dead. The precious promise burned like salt in an open wound every time her abusive husband forced himself upon her. Now she’s escaped with her son, determined to make a new life. Out of money by the time she reaches Edinburgh, she secures employment as a hostess at Château Delatate. Thanks to the mercy and kindness of the big-hearted madam; Isobel doesn’t have to receive men. As hostess, she makes them feel comfortable in the smoking room until their lady for the evening becomes available. The job provides a roof, food, and a bit of money to set aside. With any luck, she can soon save enough to escape to the Highlands where her son will be safe from discovery. But then Alasdair walks through the door.
Redemption. Healing. Love. Fate teases Alasdair and Isobel with the hope of all three. But before they can claim any of these, there’s the unsettled matter of Isobel's cruel husband, the man determined to see her dead and do anything to recover his only heir.
“Those men are here again. At the service door.” An irritated huff seasoned the announcement. “And it’s not even midday yet. Shameful, I tell ye. Utterly shameful.”
Alasdair Cameron didn’t bother to look up from the document on his desk. His prim housekeeper, Mrs. Aggie, made it clear with her tone that she expected him to call down a shower of hellfire and damnation on the two unexpected, yet familiar, guests at the rear entrance to the kitchen.
A pert stomp of a heel and a growling ahem stressed her desire for immediate action.
Hungry for a bit of levity to brighten the dreary morning, he couldn’t resist teasing her a wee bit. He looked her in the eyes and winked. “I dinna suppose ye’d be good enough to see them to the study?”
“I would not!” The door banged shut as cold and final as the sealing of a tomb.
“I thought not.” He pushed up from his chair and stretched before scrubbing both hands across his face. He hadn’t realized Ian had returned to Edinburgh so soon. When he got hold of his younger brother, he’d be kicking his arse for him. How dare the wee rascal visit Château Delatate before letting his only brother know he’d survived his latest mercenary campaign.
Damn, Ian. Ever since the lad had discovered Lettie, one of Madam Georgianna’s harlots, who possessed a disturbing resemblance to his dead wife, the heartsick fool spent all his coin and quite a bit of Alasdair’s at the elite establishment renowned for satisfying a gentleman’s every whim. Whenever Ian passed out drunk and ran out of money, Madam Georgianna sent for Alasdair to come and collect him. Said she pitied Ian. What with losing his wife and unborn child the way he had at the massacre at Glencoe, she couldn’t bear to treat him ill.
The brothers considered it an act of kindness on Madam Georgianna’s part. Any of the establishment’s other clients discovered penniless and pickled in one of the boudoirs, found themselves charged fourfold the usual rate while they sobered up. After all, ’twas a brothel, not an inn.
Alasdair strode down the long narrow hallway leading to the manor’s kitchen. This house was a far cry from a drafty stone keep hidden in the unbridled wilderness of the Highlands. Part of him hated the tamed air of the place, but the part of him growing accustomed to the conveniences and comforts of higher class living in Edinburgh liked it just fine.
He shoved through the swinging door of the kitchen and came up short as every servant froze, faced him, then stood as though holding their breath so as not to miss a single word that fell from his lips. He wasn’t particularly fond of that either. Hell, he was just a man. No better or no worse than the lot of them. Fate had just been kinder, and he’d prospered. Well…in some ways he had. He pushed away the long-ago memories threatening to surface. Now was not the time to ruminate over regrets and past mistakes.
He headed toward the duo standing just inside the service entrance. Twins. Identical mountains of blonde-haired brawn except for the color of their eyes. It was the only way Alasdair could tell apart Château Delatate’s armed keepers of the peace, as Madam Georgianna had fondly dubbed them. Alasdair pulled his wallet from the inside pocket of his waistcoat as he addressed the closest giant. “How long this time, Einrich?”
He flashed a brilliant smile, his perfect teeth gleaming. “Master Ian arrived early,” he said in a heavy German accent. He turned to his brother. “Delatate’s erster kunde for today. Ja, Adalbert?”
“Ja,” Adalbert said as he stepped forward with a flawless smile of his own. “Said for you to come at once. Said very important.”
After several fetchings of Ian, Alasdair had learned more German than he had ever thought to encounter in Scotland. Erster kunde meant Ian was Delatate’s first client or customer of the day, and ja was German for yes. But from the way the Friedrich brothers acted, his brother was not drunk, passed out, nor out of funds—yet. It appeared Ian had sent the pair.
Mrs. Aggie interrupted with another shrill clearing of her throat. “Edinburgh’s finest solicitor should nay be seen traipsing into a common brothel this early in the day.”
“So, ye’d have no issue if I waited ’til after midday, aye?” He did so love nettling poor Mrs. Aggie. She acted more mother than housekeeper and, on most days, he didn’t mind. Her meddling grew a bit thorny at times, but for the most part, her caring ways brought a nice bit of comfort to the house.
“Ye know verra well that is not what I meant!” She puffed up like an angry hen, her white starched apron nearly popping free of its pins at her rounded shoulders. She shook a finger at the twins. “Ye canna go with them. Ye’ve always fetched Master Ian in the dead of night before. Ye’ve appearances to think of.”
“We bring him in back way,” Adalbert offered. “Just like always.”
Einrich nodded and gave Mrs. Aggie a kindly smile. “No one see. Das verspreche ich.”
“What did ye just call me?” The sputtering woman stomped closer to Einrich with fists trembling as though readying for a fight.
Einrich held up both hands and shook his head faster. “Nein. Nein.” He frowned down at the furious housekeeper for a moment, then brightened with a smile meant to charm. “I said I promise no one see him.”
Time to take control before Einrich got hurt. Alasdair edged his way around Mrs. Aggie. “We’ll exit the gardens by the back gate, and go through the , aye?”
“I’ll be having a stern word with Master Ian. I promise ye that.” She clasped her hands and twitched with a haughty sniff. “Shame on him for risking such disrespect to his brother’s name.”
Deciding it best not to comment, Alasdair gave the housekeeper a kindly nod, then herded the Friedrich brothers out the door ahead of him. Mrs. Aggie had no idea of Alasdair and Ian's past, and her ignorance was for the best. Life could be a cruel taskmaster and force a man to do many a regrettable thing at times.
“What is so important, Einrich? Why did Master Ian send for me?” Alasdair took the lead as they wound their way through the private gardens at the rear of the manor. In all the months since Ian had discovered Château Delatate, this was the first time he had sent for Alasdair. Always before, he’d been too drunk.
Einrich just shook his head and increased the length of his stride.
They rounded the final hedgerow and exited the gardens. A private, cobblestoned alleyway separated the exclusive gentleman’s club from Alasdair’s property. Little had he known when he’d purchased the land that it abutted the morally questionable establishment. It mattered not, though. It made fetching Ian easier.
Château Delatate maintained a respectable facade while catering to the baser needs of Edinburgh’s elite. According to Ian, the upper-class brothel also serviced several visitors from London’s royal court on a regular basis.
The pair ushered Alasdair toward the steps leading up to the first floor’s back entrance rather than the servant entrance at cellar level. Einrich held the door open and stepped back. “Master Ian waits in Madam Georgianna’s parlor.”
So, Ian had fully endeared himself to the indomitable French businesswoman? Madam Georgianna’s most experienced harlot and longtime business partner, Fanny McGraw, had succumbed to Ian’s charms on his first visit to the establishment. It had taken his brother a little longer to soften Madam Georgianna. Alasdair snorted out a laugh. Ian had always possessed the rare gift of making women yearn to take care of him.
He paused in the hallway, waiting for Adalbert and Einrich to direct him. Heaven forbid a man open the wrong door in Château Delatate. Some things could not be unseen.
“Here, Master Alasdair.” Adalbert opened the first door on the right and gave a polite nod.
Alasdair strode into the room, old warrior instincts tensing him as the door clicked shut behind him.
Ian turned from the window, allowing the sumptuous, floor-length cascade of burgundy velvet to fall back in place in front of the glass. “Took ye long enough.”
“What have ye done, Ian? It must be dire since ye’re not drunk on yer arse, and the Friedrich brothers demanded no coin for yer stay.”
“I only arrived this morning but soon as I saw what I saw, I had to send for ye.” Ian hooked his thumbs into his belt. “I’ve not even seen Lettie yet. That’s how important the matter.”
Alasdair studied his brother, searching for guile in the gray eyes that Mam had always sworn matched his own. None existed. Ian spoke the truth. His unkempt, curly mop of hair had partially escaped its ties, and his kilt, waistcoat, and jacket appeared a bit dusty from his travels. Grime smudged his knuckles and smeared down one side of his leg.
Madam Georgianna’s ladies always bathed with their clients before seeing to any other requests. Lettie had not yet bathed Ian.
Uneasiness tingling across his nape, Alasdair braced himself. “Out with it, man. What did ye see?”
Ian gave him a blood-chilling look, then moved to the gilded cabinet beside the fancy, tile-inlaid hearth. He uncorked a crystal decanter of golden liquid and filled a pair of glasses with the whisky. He proffered one and nodded for Alasdair to take a drink.
The burning swallow almost cut off his air as Ian uttered the only word powerful enough to bring him to his knees.
The delicate glass shattered in his hand. Resurfacing memories, painful ones, hammered through him. A vicious roaring across his senses drowned out all else.
“Isobel,” he choked out in a whisper. Her name caught in his throat, cleaving his heart in two.
“Take care, man!” Ian hurried forward, pried open Alasdair’s fist, and plucked the shards of glass out of his palm. He tossed them into a porcelain bowl perched on a small pedestal table nearby. “Ye get blood on Madam Georgianna’s fine new rug, and she’ll have yer arse.” He yanked free his neckcloth and wound the linen around Alasdair’s bleeding hand.
He pulled his hand free of his brother’s grasp. “Explain. Now.” He couldn’t form complete sentences through the ripping storm of emotions.
“Isobel is here.” Ian took a step back and gave an apologetic shrug. “Working.”
“My Isobel?” Alasdair clenched his teeth. “Ye’re saying my Isobel has become one of Madam Georgianna’s whores?” He surged forward and grabbed hold of Ian by the throat of his shirt. Rage out-roared reason, possessing him like a thunderous, unrelenting demon. He gave him a hard shake. “Ye lie.”
Ian shook his head as he pried Alasdair’s fingers open and freed himself. “I swear it. Isobel is here. She greeted me in the entry hall. Soon as she saw it was me, she ran upstairs quick as a minute.”
The regret and sympathy flashing in his brother’s eyes burned like salt in a fresh wound. Alasdair strode to the door and yanked it open. He’d find her. By all that was holy, this time, he wouldn’t fail. He’d find her and explain. He’d not miss this second chance.
Madam Georgianna, older but still a flaxen-haired beauty that looked more queen than harlot, appeared in the doorway. “One does not ascend the stairs without the escort of a lady, Monsieur Alasdair.” Her sharp, blue-eyed gaze slid past Alasdair and settled on Ian. “You promised no incidents, Monsieur Ian.”
“Take me to her. Now.” Alasdair had no time for niceties or brothel rules. He’d borne this pain and guilt for ten years. Ten painful years. Now was the time to confess his soul to the only woman possessing the power and the right to forgive him.
The madam gave him a chiding look and blew out a heavy sigh. “It is my understanding that Isobel has fallen ill and finds herself unable to fulfill her duties. She retired upstairs for a brief rest before leaving for the day.”
“Leaving for the day?” Madam Georgianna’s words made no sense. All the whores of Château Delatate resided on site. Alasdair pushed past her and stepped out into the hall.
She snatched hold of his arm and held fast. The woman was stouter than she looked. “Non, Monsieur Alasdair.”
He’d not treat the madam ill, but he’d not tolerate any ruses either. Not this time. Too much was at stake. “I will see her. Now.”
“Do not make the mistake of thinking Einrich and Adalbert will not restrain you if I order it, monsieur.” She shifted to stand in front of him, blocking his way to the set of stairs down the hall. “Their employment always takes priority over any possible friendships.” The faintest smile curled her heavily painted lips. “Even though Monsieur Ian and you are two of our favorite people, the brothers will still do as I instruct them.”
He didn’t give a whit if she called the entirety of His Majesty’s regiment. He’d easily best them all. But what she’d said about Isobel leaving for the day nettled him still. She hadn’t given him a proper answer. “What did ye mean when ye said Isobel would leave for the day?”
A woman with plentiful, bouncing curves descended the stairs and ambled toward them. Flaming red hair piled high in loose ringlets and a silk dressing gown flapping in her wake like a pair of wings, Fanny McGraw shook a bejeweled finger in Alasdair’s direction. “She’s locked the door. Said she canna bear to see our Master Ian here. Reminds her too much of yerself. Said she’d be going home soon but was sure to return tomorrow.” Huffing to a stop, she shoved both hands up under her abundant bosoms and adjusted their bulging situation above the neckline of her straining corset. Her crookedly penciled brows drew together as she scowled at Alasdair. “She talked like she thought ye dead. Why is that?”
With a growling roar, he punched the wall, then shot back around and faced Madam Georgianna. “Answer me, damn ye! Since when do ye allow yer whores to live elsewhere?”
Fanny gasped, and Madam Georgianna’s eyes flared. The madam returned her hand to Alasdair’s arm and attempted to steer him back inside her sitting room. “If you would be so kind as to lower your voice and have a seat, Fanny and I will be more than happy to explain Isobel’s situation here at Château Delatate. Since you have helped us on more than one occasion with legal issues, I shall afford you that courtesy. But I do insist you calm yourself, or we will tell you nothing and will do our best to conceal the girl. The choice is yours, Monsieur Alasdair.”
“Give over, Alasdair. Ye know they can hide the girl where ye’d never find her.” Ian took hold of his other arm and pulled. “Calm down, man, and have a drink. She’s locked herself upstairs and is not going anywhere.”
He stomped into the sitting room, fighting to regain a bit of composure. Damn them all. They couldn’t possibly understand. He sucked in a deep breath and groaned. He’d always prided himself on remaining calm. Clear-headed and logical. It was how he’d earned his nickname The Judge. Only Isobel had the power to render him so crazed. Over the last ten years, he’d conquered his past, controlled the memories, and overcome how they twisted him. Within a heartbeat of hearing her name, he’d lost the ability to rise above the pain and function with any civility.
Ian held out a generous glass of whisky. “Sit and drink, man. This isna like ye.”
Alasdair emptied the glass in a single, fiery gulp and held it out for another. He lowered himself into the only chair in the room sturdy enough to support him. The salon was filled with delicate upholstered furniture better suited to the female form. Damned French and their gaudy designs.
Ian handed him another drink and took a seat on the matching couch in front of an ornate hearth of ceramic and copper tiles. Fanny and Madam Georgianna seated themselves across from Alasdair. Both of them folded their hands in their laps, sitting stiff and straight as though in a church pew.
“Well?” Alasdair tossed back the second glass of whisky and held out his glass for more.
“Perhaps it would help your composure to learn that Isobel is not a lady of Château Delatate.” Madam Georgianna cast a glance over at Ian. “Do be a gentleman and pour Fanny and myself a glass of port. Oui?”
Ian hurried to do her bidding.
“Then in what capacity is she in yer employ?” Alasdair tensed to the edge of his seat, hands fisted atop his knees. The madam had no reason to lie, but he had a hard time believing her. Isobel had been a rare beauty ten years ago and more than likely had only improved with age. A beautiful whore, especially in a brothel with such elite clientele, would bring in a great deal of coin. Her indulgence of Ian aside, Madam Georgianna was a businesswoman first.
“She cleans up a bit here on the first floor and is also our hostess,” Fanny said as she accepted her glass of port from Ian. “Greets our customers in the hall. Seats them in the smoking room and finds out which lady they’re here to see. Keeps’m happy whilst they wait.”
“Keeps them happy how?” He downed his refill. The neckcloth wound around his hand reminded him to watch his grip and not allow his temper to shatter a second glass. “Another.”
“Pleasant conversation. Drinks. Tobacco. A bit of food.” Madam Georgianna gave him a perturbed look, then shifted a sideways glance in Fanny’s direction. “She does nothing more, Master Alasdair. As per the agreement Fanny made with Isobel due to her unfortunate circumstances.”
“Poor thing,” Fanny said before he could respond. “Penniless. Wandering the streets with a bairn at her knee and her aged auntie at her side.” Fanny leaned forward and shook her head. “Her auntie looks older than Moses himself.”
“Bairn?” The word made Alasdair’s blood run cold. He swallowed hard and stared down at the floor. Fool. She’s been married ten years. Of course, she has a child by now. Probably, more than one.
“Aye,” Fanny answered, then beamed with an indulgent smile. “Young Connor. Five summer’s old, he is, and full of piss and vinegar.”
A son. Isobel had a son. A duke’s son. Alasdair lifted his head and locked eyes with Fanny. “How the hell did the Duchess of Temsworth end up in Edinburgh penniless and looking for a means to support her son?”
Lord Archibald Cuthbarten, Duke of Temsworth, was known as one of the more affluent of the peerage, well-landed, and unfortunately, still very much alive—at least the last Alasdair had heard.
Fanny leaned forward and made to speak again, but Madam Georgianna held up a hand and stayed her. “It is our understanding that Isobel wished to separate herself and her son from the duke for her own safety as well as her child’s.” The madam's regal composure shifted to a repulsed look as though she’d been offended by a stench. “We have no doubt she speaks the truth. The Duke of Temsworth is no longer on the exclusive clientele list of Château Delatate after his behavior here last summer.”
“Sick, cruel bastard, that one is,” Fanny said as though she couldn’t bear remaining silent any longer. She shook her head. “Poor Daisy. Lass has never been the same since that man did what he did to her.”
“Why the hell did she not come to me?” Alasdair turned and asked Ian, “Why?”
“I told ye, she talked like she thought ye dead,” Fanny interrupted. She pointed at Ian. “Told me she grew up with that one there and had loved his brother, meaning yerself, of course. When I asked her what happened, she said fate took ye away. She didna know ye still lived and breathed.”
“The only fate that took me away was her avaricious father selling her to that damned duke.” He stared down at the floor, wringing his hands. “I meant to stop the wedding. Steal her away.” He turned to Ian, his anguish reflected in his brother’s gaze. “Then the morbid sore throat swept through our clan and took down the lot of us.”
“Alasdair and I were among the few who survived, but ye dinna recover from such an ailment with haste.” Ian rose, went to Alasdair’s side, and rested a hand on his shoulder. “Took us months to get back on our feet and pull together the few of us who lived.” He shook his head. “There were nay enough left to even see to the burying of all the dead. We had to beg help from clans farther afield that had nay been stricken with the disease.”
“And after that, it was too late. She was married.” Alasdair rose, crossed the room, and refilled his glass. He moved to the window and swept aside the heavy curtains. He stared out the pane, but all he saw was the memory of what he’d seen the day he’d gone to London to fetch Isobel back. The aching pain in his heart burned all the fiercer. “I meant to steal her back from him. Get the marriage annulled. I went to his estate in London, and I waited.”
“And?” Fanny prompted, scooting to the edge of her seat.
“And I saw her smiling up into that bastard’s eyes as the two of them strolled arm in arm through their gardens, laughing together at the secrets only lovers share.” Alasdair let the curtain drop back in place and returned to his seat. “So, I left her there to enjoy the life I could never hope to give her. A life of ease. Of riches. Of status.” He shook his head, the knots of his pain tightening. “But I always wished her to know that I had kept my word. I had come for her. Just like I said I would.” He looked at the two women staring back at him. “I still love Isobel. Love her as strong as ever.” The barest glimmer of hope flickered within him. Isobel had left the duke. Willingly. Was fate offering him a small crumb of recompense? “Fetch her. I beg ye. Fetch her down, and let me speak with her.”
Fanny and Madam Georgianna’s gazes met as though reading each other’s thoughts. Madam Georgianna finally nodded, and Fanny rose and hurried out the door. Turning back to Alasdair, the madam fixed him with a concerned look that struck him as almost tender. “You understand, she may refuse to see you?”
“She has to see me. I have to make her understand what happened all those years ago.” He took a step closer to the door, itching to chase after Fanny but knowing that would be rash. He had to wait. Be patient. He couldn’t fail again. Not when he’d been given this second chance. “I can help her now that she’s in need. I can take care of her—and her child.”
“And if she does not wish for your care?” Madam Georgianna stood and positioned herself between Alasdair and the door as though sensing his urge to follow Fanny. “The Isobel here at Château Delatate is not the Isobel you knew ten years ago. This woman has endured much, monsieur. She trusts no one and is as protective of her son as a wild animal protecting its young.”
“That sounds verra much like the Isobel I have always loved.”
Fanny reappeared at the door of the sitting room. The downcast look on her face told all. She gave a sad shake of her head. “I am sorry, Master Alasdair. She willna see yerself nor Master Ian.” She threw both hands in the air. “I thought she’d at least see Master Ian once she knew ye to be alive. Everybody loves Master Ian.” She clasped her hands tight. “But she said no. Said ye abandoned her to Satan himself, and she’ll never forgive ye.” Fanny cocked a brow at Madam Georgianna. “And she said all this through a locked door. I doubt she’ll be coming out anytime soon. She knows well enough her aunt will take good care of the lad and keep him hidden.”
“Where are they?” Alasdair moved closer to the door. He knew Isobel’s aunt from childhood. Clan MacNaughton and Clan MacCoinnich had been close on the Isle of Skye. Their lands bordered one another, long ago before the dreaded illness hit. If he could get Isobel’s aunt to remember him, mayhap she could convince Isobel to see him. “Are they near?”
Madam Georgianna rose from the velvet sofa. “We promised Isobel our protection. That protection extends to her family. I shall intercede on your behalf and attempt to convince her to see you. Grant her some time, Monsieur Alasdair. As I said earlier, she has been through much. Give her the time and understanding she so badly needs.”
“Swear to me ye willna allow her to leave without my seeing her.” That was Alasdair’s greatest fear. If he did as the madam suggested, he might never see Isobel again. She might slip out of his life once more.
Madam Georgianna’s mouth tightened. After a nod in Fanny’s direction, she turned back to Alasdair. “I shall place her under the protection of the Friedrich brothers. It’s the least I can offer after your handling of the rather delicate matter of Lord Dunfold for us.” She fluttered a hand in the air. “But I can promise no more.” Motioning for both Ian and Alasdair to exit the room, she held the door wide. “I will do my best, Monsieur Alasdair. Now, return to your home. I shall send for you if she changes her mind.”
“When,” Alasdair corrected. “When she changes her mind—because I promise ye, I’ll not be losing her again.”